What’s the difference between having a fantasy, a fetish, and a kink? And why does it matter?
Often, having non-normative desires can leave a person feeling abnormal or even wrong. And it often takes identifying and analyzing those desires to realize that these parts of yourself are not only normal, but can be healthy and fun parts of your life.
Having non-normative fantasies are the perfect example of that. Too often we take too Freudian of an approach to fantasies, thinking “a happy person never fantasizes, only a dissatisfied one.” But research tells us that, not only do almost all of us have fantasies and a diverse range of them, it’s healthy and often makes us happier, both in and out of bed. And that, in fact, the denial of or anxiety over our desires can cause psychological harm. So long as it’s not negatively affecting your real-world, everyday life, no matter what fantasies reel through your head, they’re very likely psychologically normal and healthy.
However, the important thing to note is that there is a difference between fairly consequence-free fantasies and reality. Making the leap from what turns you on in theory to practice—particularly partnered practice—takes a lot of thought, work, and communication. In fantasy, anything we want to happen can happen, exactly how we want it every time. But lots of unexpected things can happen when exploring fetishes and kinks in real life with other real-life people, and we all want, as much as possible, to prepare and practice so we can have the most enjoyable experience possible.
So exactly what are fetishes and kinks? “Fetish” and “kink” are often used interchangeably and certainly can be. They are very similar and often hard to necessarily distinguish, since they very often overlap.
But, often, “fetish” tends to relate more with types, things, and attributes (eg. “I have a foot fetish” or “I have a Lolita fetish”). After all, the original term was defined as giving an object special significance, like a religious or ceremonial fetish item, that is “regarded with awe as having mysterious powers or being the representative of a deity that may be worshipped through it.” Sexually speaking, these are items or features that, for whatever reason, play prominently in our sexual expression. Perhaps, there is something about the look or feel of rope or leather or heels that arouses. Or, perhaps, there is something about redheads or Asians or BBWs that turns you on.
And, that’s great and healthy and fun. Just so long as you remember that the partners you’re lucky enough to explore your fetishes with—rope tops or bottoms, leather Daddies, babydolls, redheads, Asians, BBWs, whomever—are people first. Are absolutely and without exception more than just that feature you’re initially attracted to. Because, while you may have a fetish—and that’s normal and okay—the people you play with should never be treated as if they are fetishes. Because, after all, you want to enjoy and share your fetish with someone you appreciate, and who appreciates you, as a complete and complex person. A partner in every sense of the word.
If fetishes tend to be more about attributes, I’ve noticed that “kink” tends to pertain more to actions and relationships (eg. “My kinks are spanking and bondage” or “My kink is D/s power exchange.”) It usually refers to how one does or is. Interestingly, the earliest use of this word refers to “when a Rope which should run smooth in the Block, hath got a little turn, and runs as it were double.” Meaning it deviates from the expected in “an odd but clever way of doing something.” So, more than just the appearance or presence of rope or leather boots, there’s something about the act or dynamics of bondage or boot-blacking that you find appealing.
These acts, while fun and exciting, often require extra skill and knowledge that must be gained before you can actually do them. For instance, bondage requires knowledge about things like the benefits of one type of binding over another and where and how to tie someone up safely and to your desired effect. Impact play requires knowledge about where and with what you can strike someone for their pleasure safely and without causing damage. Playing with power exchange requires clear contextual understandings and negotiations about roles and boundaries. These are all fun activities but, to fully enjoy them, you need proper preparation. Which is part of what makes the whole kinky game great; gaining odd skills and learning clever techniques is part of what makes being kinky fun!
Think of fetishes and kinks as essentially the advanced expansion pack of sexual relationships. It isn’t the entirety of the game and it certainly isn’t a starter set. It’s not something that you just pick up and play. I’m of the belief that it should exist in your head and your fantasies for a good long while before you ever crack open that toy box.
Because this lifestyle takes real thought. It takes preparation and extra effort to turn it into a reality. And it puts you—Dom(me), sub, top, bottom, or switch—in a place of vulnerability and you want to know, before you’re whip-deep in a scene, that you’re ready for it. To just jump in without that time, effort, experience, and thought would be like trying to deep-sea dive before ever learning how to swim. That preparation is an essential and essentially enjoyable part of the experience. It’s not what you do so you can get to the fun part; it is part of the fun.
So enjoy it. Because, whether you have a fantasy, a fetish, a kink, or a combination of any and all, what you have is an opportunity. When done well, exploring your fantasies, fetishes, and kinks—whatever they are—safely, sanely, and consensually gives you a unique chance to learn more about yourself, your partners, and the near limitless fun you can have together!